ACTING Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin and Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang yesterday crossed swords on whether the WP had concrete proposals on how to expand the local workforce.

Mr Tan also charged that Mr Low was flip-flopping on the issue of the intake of foreign labour.

The minister pressed the WP again for concrete initiatives, beyond the slew of measures the Government has in place, to attract more senior citizens and homemakers back to work.

Boosting the resident workforce in this way is a key plank of the WP's alternative population road map. It envisions a cap on additional foreign labour if the resident workforce can be expanded by 1 per cent every year.

Mr Low retorted that Mr Tan's challenge was akin to saying 'nothing can be done, and if something can be done, can the WP do something about it?'

'(Mr Tan) should go back and look at his programmes.

'If he thinks the ministry can't do very much and wants the WP to do more, perhaps he ought to consider putting his ministry's resources under the WP,' he said.

Mr Tan, in turn, urged WP MPs to 'read about some of these initiatives'.

He said they have helped make Singapore's elderly labour force participation rate one of the highest in the world.

Still, he is keen to hear proposals on how to improve this further, and 'would appreciate if there are concrete ideas accompanying some of the (WP's) broader statements'.

Mr Tan also noted that during the Budget debate last March, Mr Low and other WP MPs had asked for differentiated foreign worker quotas by sector.

This was to give sectors reliant on foreign workers more time to restructure. This jarred with the WP's current stance, he said.

Later, Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) of the People's Action Party (PAP) made the same point, quoting what Mr Low had previously said of curbs on sectors with a high reliance on foreign labour: 'We tighten it slowly rather than tighten it at one go.'

Mr Low later rose to defend himself, emphasising that his earlier call for differentiated foreign worker quotas by sector is not in conflict with the goal of curbing the overall foreign labour contingent.

'I have said many times in this House that we need to control the foreign worker inflow, and questioned the foreign workers' levy. I have said that foreign workers depress Singaporean wages and take away Singaporean jobs. So I don't see any contradiction.'

He added that if the minister thought his department was unable to come up with ideas and wanted the WP to do so, he should 'consider putting his ministry's resources under the WP'.

Mr Tan countered that Mr Low's concern that low-productivity businesses would be unduly squeezed by foreign worker curbs runs counter to the WP's present line of forcing them to restructure now rather than later.